Accord Seen Helping Streamline Math, Science Programs
WASHINGTON--A recent agreement between the Education Department and the National Science Foundation to pool resources to jointly plan and develop precollegiate science and mathematics programs is more than a mere formality, observers say.
Rather, they assert, the effort has the potential to streamline the delivery of federal programs and to better define the federal government's role in education.
At a joint press conference this month, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander and Walter E. Massey, the director of the N.S.F., signed a "memorandum of understanding" designed to better target the $657 million in federal funds they administer toward helping the nation's schoolchildren meet the ambitions national goals for science and math education. ('See Education Week, Feb. 12, 1992.)
Under the terms of the agreement, the agencies, which together account for 85 percent of federal spending on precollegiate education, will establish a working group of 10 senior-level officials to set an agenda for cooperation.
Officials said that the group's first priority will be to devise ways to improve teacher-training programs.
Mr. Massey noted that the agreement is a "natural progression of what has been a long history of interaction" between the N.S.F.--which focuses on science research--and the Education Department-which emphasizes defining and disseminating exemplary classroom practices.
"We now have a formal mechanism for comprehensive planning at the highest levels," he said.
Officials in the science-education community, while cautious about pronouncing the agreement an unqualified success, said it has potential for speeding reform.
"I think it is an extremely important step in the right direction, but the proof will be in the pudding," said F. James Rutherford, the education director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Now, it's up to the agencies to make the project work."
A Forum for Dialogue
Mr. Massey was quick to credit the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government for providing the impetus that led to the agreement.
In a report titled "In the National Interest: The Federal Government in the Reform of K-12 Math and Science Education," issued by the commission last fall, a 14-member panel recommended that the agencies should establish a joint office for math and science improvement. (See Education Week, Sept. 18, 1991.)
"All of us should offer our thanks to the commission for providing the inspiration for these negotiations," Mr. Massey said.
Lewis M. Branscomb, who headed the panel, said he was pleased that the agencies acted so quickly, but not surprised at the relatively short time, by Washington standards, it took to reach the agreement. "Our task force was comprised of people with a lot of knowledge and background," said Mr. Branscomb, the Albert Pratt Public Service Professor of Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "And, more importantly, it was the right thing to do."
He noted that while preparing its report, the committee maintained a strong working relationship with senior N.S.F officials.
He also suggested that the process may have been expedited by David Kearns, the former chairman of the Xerox Corporation, who served as a member of the committee before he resigned to accept an appointment as deputy secretary of education.
Mr. Branscomb pointed out, however, that the agreement stops short of fully implementing the panel's recommendation to create a joint planning office.
"They didn't do everything we proposed, but they took the first step," he said. "They've got to first talk to each other."
Defining a Federal Role
Officials of national science teaching organizations, while unfamiliar with the details of the agreement, generally supported efforts to reduce the duplication of effort at the federal level.
"On the surface, that looks very good," said Lynn Glass, the president of the National Science Teachers Association.
The agreement may, for example, promote better articulation at the local level between the Education Department's Eisenhower grants program and the N.S.F.'S State Systemic Initiatives, he noted.
"The N.S.F. is connected very well with the scientific community, but [it is] not well-connected with state [education] departments, and it is not connected with the science and math education communities," he added.
Mr. Rutherford said that a unified approach at the federal level might well balance the diversity of efforts to reform science education.
"We put a lot of energy into reforms and we go in a lot directions, but we do a lot of canceling out," he said.
He added that the new alliance may simplify accountability for officials of Project 2061, the A.A.A.s.'s long-term effort to reform science education, which is funded by and accountable to officials from both agencies.
Mr. Branscomb noted that the importance of the agreement stems in part from the fact that it implicitly recognizes the leverage that the federal government can apply to reform.
"For most of the Reagan years, the big argument was 'Does the federal government have a role at all?' "he noted.